I sat cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, eyes closed, body still. I was in a large but at the same time, intimate, room surrounded by more than a hundred ardent seekers after truth. We had been sitting together like this for several weeks at a retreat centre near Boston. We meditated all day every day–sitting, walking, eating, brushing teeth, chopping veggies—everything was a meditation.
Inside or outside: the abiding tension
At the front of the hall, the teacher gently struck the rim of a bronze Tibetan singing bowl. A low mellow sound arose, reverberated, and gradually faded to silence. Usually this sound signalled the beginning or end of a meditation period. Today the sound was part of the meditation.
As the sound of the bell waned, the teacher said, “Is this sound inside or outside?” After a few minutes of silence, the teacher struck the bell again. Again, the sound blossomed and faded. Again the teacher asked, “Inside or outside?”
After being at the retreat, in silence, for so long, my mind and body were still and quiet. I had become intensely curious about miniscule aspects of experience. My ordinary sense of who I was had taken a break, not being needed for the task at hand—being radically present for whatever was arising in the moment. I looked to see where the sound of the bell was occurring. Inside or outside?
I could not tell. It was both inside and outside. It was neither inside nor outside. I understood the question but it made no sense. Ahhhh . . . The question was an artefact of a series of mental constructs—habits of mind. There was no inside or outside—just the sound, arising and passing away.
More than a decade later, I took on the responsibility of overseeing a fledgling initiative in unfamiliar terrain. The University of British Columbia, a large, internationally-ranked, research-intensive university wanted to reach out to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, well-known as Canada’s poorest postal code, a neighbourhood beset by seemingly intractable social problems like homelessness, open drug use, and a street sex trade.
For the next twelve years, as my staff team and I navigated across boundaries of many kinds at many levels, that question, “Inside or outside?” haunted me. It was a koan, a riddle that sometimes appeared as a direct question—Is UBC still considered an unwelcome outsider in the Downtown Eastside? Sometimes it was more subtle—How can we get faculty members to understand the value of having students get outside the classroom to do volunteer work in the community? Other times the question was more personal—How can I, someone whose roots are in the community, effect change in an academic institution whose culture is so foreign?
This website tells the story of how the University of British Columbia Learning Exchange unfolded. The abiding subtext to the story is the question, “Inside or outside?” Where are the boundaries? Who decides? What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider? How do individuals and groups move from the margins to the centre? What can be learned through navigating this territory?
Now that I am outside the labyrinth and have had time to reflect, I also wonder, “What is more important, achieving the goal of getting to the centre or maintaining a certain quality of attention along the way?” Or is this question, too, merely an artefact?